Add inflated water bills to the list of this winter’s complications.
The weather forced local water company Suez to stop reading meters at its 91,000 connections in and around Boise, customer service manager Linda McCuskey said Tuesday.
First, so much snow was coming into the area that workers had a hard time finding the meters. Second, the company worried that opening meter boxes would expose the meters to low temperatures, allowing them to freeze.
So Suez estimated water consumption for customers whose meters otherwise would have been read on or after Dec. 15. Estimating water use is rare in Boise, McCuskey said, because the winter usually isn’t this severe.
Problems arose when customers received their bills late last month. Tony Diehl, who lives near the corner of Cole and Amity roads, said his bill was six times higher than it was for the same two-month period last year. He said his next-door neighbor’s bill was nine times higher.
Q: What happened?
A flaw in Suez’s estimation algorithm caused bad estimates, McCuskey said.
When Suez estimates water consumption instead of measuring it, she said, the utility’s computers base their estimates on the last billing cycle. For example, a customer whose meter normally would have been read Dec. 15 might have been billed for water usage close to what Suez measured between Aug. 15 and Oct. 15 — a time of much greater water consumption.
This is what happened to Diehl. He said his measured water usage for the October-to-December period last year was 10 CCFs, or about 7,500 gallons. His bill for the same months this year showed an estimated consumption of 60 CCFs — roughly in line with his prior billing cycle’s measured usage of 63 CCFs.
Diehl said Suez charged his homeowners association $320 for irrigating common areas, even though the sprinkler system was shut off.
Q: How has Suez responded?
Though water companies are allowed to estimate usage in Idaho, Suez’s estimation approach runs counter to methods described in Idaho Public Utilities Commission rules.
“Each water utility with more than 5,000 customers shall compare on each customer’s regular billing the customer’s actual consumption of water with the customer’s actual consumption of water for the corresponding billing period in the previous year,” the commission’s customer relations rules read.
Utilities commission investigators have received calls from Suez customers worried about their bills, commission spokesman Gene Fadness said. Suez has been in contact with the commission about its billing problems, spokeswoman Stephanie Raddatz said.
Fines or other punishment are unlikely because Suez is trying to fix its mistakes. The commission will monitor Suez’s response to make sure it’s treating customers fairly, Fadness said.
“The only way that we would aggressively pursue anything beyond that is if the utility said, ‘We made the mistake and we don’t care,’ ” Fadness said.
Q: How many customers were affected?
That’s not clear. Not all customers received inflated bills. In some circumstances, McCuskey said, Suez employees re-estimated bills they found that appeared unrealistic. In some of these cases, estimates are close to last year’s October-to-December measurements.
McCuskey said she hopes Suez can alter its estimation program to do something similar.
Q: Will this affect sewer rates?
Every spring, Suez sends the city of Boise and other local sewer districts its water consumption measurements taken between October and April. The sewer districts use those numbers to calculate customers’ bills.
McCuskey said Suez is working with the sewer utilities, including the city of Boise, to make sure there are not incorrect increases in sewer bills.
Q: What can people do?
Suez customers who suspect their bills are wrong should call the company at 362-7304. If the bill is in fact wrong, McCuskey said, the company will adjust it.
Sooner or later, Suez will start reading meters again. Customers who paid too much will receive corresponding credits on future bills, McCuskey said.